Tuesday, April 8, 2014

“We are assuring you, it will never happen again”

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of what is surely among the most important genocidal acts of my lifetime: the attempt to eradicate as many members of the Tutsi population in Rwanda (and sympathetic Hutus, it must be remembered). Below is an essay I wrote nearly a decade ago both as a commemoration of the anniversary and as an example of one kind of research essay for my classes. There are many posts reflecting the acts beginning April 7, 1994, on the internet this week; this one is about the attempt to bring a sense of justice in a particularly Rwandan way.

Abstract:  The Rwandan practice of Gacaca—a process of public confession done before a town’s residents—is helping to quicken the pace of judicial procedures instituted in response to the 1994 Rwandan genocidal massacres.           

“We will Never Do It Again!”:

Rwandan Gacaca

On February 19, 2003—just a few months shy of the ninth anniversary of the April 1994 airplane crash killing President Juvenal Habyaramana and setting into motion the infamous 100-day genocidal attack on Rwandan ethnic Tutsis—“Judges at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda...unanimously pronounced former Seventh day Adventist pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana and his son[,] medical doctor Gerard Ntakirutimana[,] guilty of genocide” (Fondation Hirondelle, 2003) for their roles in specific killings at Mugonero and Busasero.   They are sentenced to ten years and twenty-five years, respectively.  The Ntakirutimanas are the highest-profile defendants of the ICTR trials, and their unanimous convictions provide testament to the difficult work done by ICTR prosecutors.

            The work has been difficult, but the eleven-month trial, the speediest of the ten decisions the ICTR has accomplished since its 1995 inception, and of which there remain another forty-five, leaves observers optimistic.  After all, the Ntakirutimana’s defense relied primarily on two easy-to-prove points:  that neither defendant was anywhere in the vicinity during the massacres in which they supposedly participated; and in any case, neither actually swung a machete, the preferred method of execution during the massacre.

            Neither fact, however, mattered.  Their guilt was moral rather than physical.  Pastor Ntaki (the familiar patronymic among Rwandans), a Hutu, had received this letter, dated April 15, 1994, from several Tutsi pastors under his leadership:

How are you!  We wish you to be strong in all these problems we are facing.  We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.  We therefore request you to intervene on our behalf and talk with the [mayor].  We believe that, with the help of God who entrusted you the leadership of this flock, which is going to be destroyed, your intervention will be highly appreciated…We give honor to you.  (Gourevitch, 1998, p. 42)


            Pastor Ntaki did indeed intervene with the mayor.  The result is described by Philip Gourevitch.

In Nyarubuye, when Tutsis asked the Hutu Power mayor how they might be spared [after the extermination had begun the previous week in Kigali], he suggested that they seek sanctuary at the church.  They did, and a few days later the mayor came to kill them.  He came at the head of a pack of soldiers, policemen, militiamen, and villagers; he gave out arms and orders to complete the job well.  No more was required of the mayor, but he also was said to have killed a few Tutsis himself.

The killers killed all day…At night they cut the Achilles tendons of survivors and went off to feast behind the church, roasting cattle looted from their victims in big fires, and drinking beer…And, in the morning, still drunk after whatever sleep they could find beneath the cries of their prey, the killers at Nyarubuye went back and killed again.  Day after day, minute to minute, Tutsi by Tutsi:  all across Rwanda, they worked like that.  “It was a process,” Sergeant Francis said.  (Gourevitch, pp 18-19)


            These victims were the neighbors and friends of their murderers.  Something very strange went on in Rwanda during those months.  And something no less strange occurs in its aftermath.

            One thing that must be understood about the Rwandan massacres is that they did not happen either in a vacuum or in secret.  The murderers, minority ethnic Hutus, members of the same tribe with which President Habyaramana, himself a Hutu, had stocked his government, were well-prepared, armed and trained for months prior to the genocide, and informed of the attack’s timing and pressed on by Radio Mille Collines, Rwanda’s nationally-owned radio station.  There were also a lot of them.  The fifty-five current cases before the ICTR are but a tiny fraction of the 2500 “Category One” killers, described by Samantha Powers (2003) as genocide planners, “well-known” murderers, or defendants who killed with “zeal” or “excessive wickedness”.  Another 120,000 Rwandans await conviction on lesser charges.  It is estimated there were 800,000 individual murders of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus during that one hundred days, and there are many, many categories besides Category One.

            The ICTR obviously cannot try each case, nor is it designed to try, a la Nuremburg, a specific class of cases.  Eventually, each case is meant to arrive in Rwanda’s regular court.  Helping them get there is a specifically Rwandan process called gacaca.

            Gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-CHA and so-named “for the leaves of grass on which traditional leaders sat while they resolved community disputes” [Powers, p 48]) is a once-a-week judicial procedure attended by the rescapés, or Tutsi and Hutu survivors of the massacres.  Inaugurated in 1999 by Rwandan president Paul Kagame in an attempt to lessen the strain on the country’s prisons into which suspects had been crammed since mid-1994, gacaca is “a public confessional process that recalls both the Salem witch trials and a Mississippi Christian revival” (Powers, p 48).  Powers describes one such gacaca she witnessed in Niyikazu, Butare:

            One group of prisoners arrived on foot, dressed like other villagers in worn blue jeans and smudged Nike T-shirts, African sarongs, and an assortment of flip-flops, loafers, and bedroom slippers…They were hauling stools and benches, on which their fellow townspeople sat during the day of exhausting testimony.  Although there was hardly any supervision, none of the prisoners tried to make a dash for the hills.  The local prison chief explained, “It is not in our culture for people to try to escape.”

            A second group of prisoners arrived dressed in pink prison uniforms…Some of the prisoners has starched their shirts for the big day.  All seemed giddy, enjoying the change of scenery and the first hope in seven years of eventual release.

            …[A] handful of prisoners in the jail’s musical troupe made their way into the center of the courtyard, which was by now ringed by more than a thousand onlookers.  One prisoner played the bongo drums and four strummed guitars, several of which had been painted pink to match their prison uniforms.  The musicians…were joined by prison singers, who danced to a rhythmic song about murder, confession, truth, liberation, and reconciliation.  The beat was catchy, combining reggae, polka, and gospel singing…When the song reached its final stanza—“We are assuring you, it will never happen again”—the three prison dancers twirled around and  swished their hips to the tune, all the while making a throat-slitting motion, and wagging their fingers to indicate admonition.  “We will never do it again!” (p 49)


            This seems the stuff of satire, ripe for mockery, but the truth lies in that phrase delivered by the unnamed prison chief:  “It is not in our culture for people to try to escape.”  These people had done terrible deeds and it has become in their best interests to confess them because they have nowhere else to go.  Those who, after the return and victory of the Rwandese Patriotic Front from Uganda, decamped to Tanzania or Congo or Zaire to escape vengeance, have, for the most part, returned.  The number of former murderers living in close proximity to their former victims is of course a sore point—Gourevitch ends his book with the story of Jean Girumuhatse, a returnee from Zaire who had run a roadblock and who admitted to killing at least six people, and his request of Laurencie Nyirabeza, a rescapé whose family he killed and a woman who he himself struck with a machete, for her “pardon”—however, as President Kagame has said, “We have no alternative.” 

            Gourevitch’s tale ends as Girumuhatse describes the genocide as “like a dream.” 

“It came from the regime like a nightmare.”  Now, it seemed, he had not so much waked up as entered a new dream, in which his confession and his pat enthusiasm for Rwanda’s reform—“The new regime is quite good.  There are no dead…There is a new order”—did not require any fundamental change of politics or heart.  He remained a middleman, aspiring to be a model citizen and to reap the rewards.  When the authorities said kill, he killed, and when the authorities said confess, he confessed.  (Gourevitch, pp 310-11)


            This, it would seem, is the particular advantage of the gacaca:  that one who needs to confess will do so, and be sent further along the chain to ultimate responsibility,  while one who has nothing to confess will be absolved.  Of the 8000 prisoners presented at gacaca, nearly 2000 have been freed, not on technicalities but on the say-so of their neighbors.  Such a system is unlikely to work in the US—we are more a nation of Pastor Ntakis, who loudly declares, if not his innocence, then his lack of responsibility for the consequences of his actions—but gacaca seems a uniquely effective Rwandan solution to a uniquely Rwandan problem.



Works Cited in this Essay:


Fondation Hirondelle.  (2003, February 19.)  Elizaphan Ntakirutimana.  Retrieved March

1, 2003.  http://www.hirondelle.org/hirondelle.nsf/caefd9edd48f5826c12564 cf00 4 f793d/b327fbfdb8707d83c12567cb003390c8?OpenDocument

Gourevitch, Philip.  (1998.)  We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed

            With our Families.  New York:  Farrar Strauss Giroux.

Powers, Samantha.  (2003, January 16.)  Rwanda:  The Two Faces of Justice.  The New

            York Review of Books, pp 47-50.


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